Speaking in the House of Lords: International Women’s Day 2017

On Thursday 9th March, I spoke in the UK House of Lords on International Women’s Day and the role the United Kingdom plays in promoting gender equality globally. Below you can read my full speech.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for initiating the debate today and for her introduction to it, but also for the ork that she was doing long before she came to the House of Lords. I also declare my interests as in the register.

On this International Women’s Day, never has there been a time when women’s rights have been more challenged. What does Brexit mean for women? Britain leaving the European Union following the referendum will result in another threat to women in the UK. The vote casts a shadow of doubt on the stability of the human rights of women, maternal and paternal leave, equal access to employment and salaries, and many other issues that make the United Kingdom a recognised leader in this field. Other countries have followed us: many women around the world have united to ensure more balanced rights for women on topics ranging from equal access to education and medical services, 30% representation of women on corporate boards, and equal pay and parity. I hope we do not lose any of these over the next few years.

Since 1915, the question of women’s rights in areas of conflict and post-conflict times has posed many obstacles. Many countries and people have worked very hard over the last 100 years to get some resolution on the issue of women being used as a tool of war. There has been a focus to involve women in the peace talks, and at every level. Five years ago, with the support of the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague—now the noble Lord, Lord Hague—we saw more concrete developments at the UN and concords ratified by countries in the United Nations. Britain has made great commitments on PSVI and will not attend peace talks, if possible, without women at the peace table, including local women as they know the real requirements of their communities.

In times leading up to conflict, during conflict and post conflict, when families are trying to flee war-torn areas, the institution of education is often completely lost. Many times the schools become the headquarters for the peacekeepers. Furthermore, only 2% of development and humanitarian aid is spent on education. It is unbelievable. What does that say to all those families and individuals who have had their way of life disrupted? Millions of people are deprived of education but it is crucial wherever you are in the world. It is as crucial as other nutrition. Without education the future has negative consequences for these victims who we would love to see become survivors. It is difficult to make up lost education for these children.

Women and children suffer the most during global displacement. The numbers of displaced people have not been this high since 1945. The majority of displaced people—and there are more to come, unfortunately, as we know—are women and children who have no access to a home, food, clean water or education. Women assume the brunt of childcare and often become ill in the inadequate situations they find themselves in. There are no real hospitals in the refugee camps or real medical assistance. The children are most vulnerable with the lack of security, safety and nutrition. We know what this does to a child. Every day that a child misses proper education and nutrition their long-term life is marred. This is a heavy burden on mothers who are just trying to survive and who worry about the uture of their children. Children may be stolen by traffickers or their parents may be prepared to let them go for a small sum of money, being told they are going to a better world. Girls may be married off because their parents feel that being a child bride might be a better way for them.

Three years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hague, then Foreign Secretary, held a very successful convening of government leaders, INGOs, the international defence community and many others. As a result of this convention, a number of commitments were made that continue today around the world. I call on the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to hold another convening in the next six months to discuss the progress achieved and the future priorities for tracking sexual violence in conflict. Britain has been leading the world on this issue, including training, funding and our stance at the peace table. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has been doing unbelievable work globally. She has taken to it and really held the mantle. It is important now that we consider where we stand and the future of this big issue. I mentioned earlier today the number of displaced people and the situation for all those living in camps and in war-torn areas. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will consider another convening in the next six months. It does not cost much money.

Women and children are a priority in peace talks. The United Kingdom has played a leading role, with Scandinavian countries and others, to ensure that peace talks include the rights of women and children. The focus is not just on peace. As we know, in one or two cases peace was done in a day but it lasted five minutes. Peace takes time and there have to be women there. When you have women at the peace table, peace lasts at least 15 years. The peace talks I know best—although I have read about Angola, Bosnia and Kosovo—are the Northern Ireland ones. Peace has held there because some women in this House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, and others were there from the beginning, before people even realised that there was going to be peace. It is really important that local women are involved in peace talks because it is women who know when they have had enough of war.

We must work together globally to ensure that the rights that women have fought to gain over the years are not taken away, and we must continue to strive for equality. We have to build an equal future with men and women working equally around the globe.

Why International Women’s Day has never been more important